Decompressing from the Wayne Mills Murder Trial

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The story has been updated.

On Thursday, March 5th of the Wayne Mills murder trial, the proceedings in the court of Judge Steve Dozier were delayed because of a sleet and snow storm that blanketed Nashville and brought the majority of the city to its knees. All of the courts were closed except for the court of Judge Dozier.

Court was set to begin at 10:30 and I arrived 15 minutes late after making it across the frozen streets, but I still was early for the murder trial proceedings to begin. However Judge Dozier’s court was in session on another case when I walked in the door. Standing at the defense podium was an individual in an orange jumpsuit and handcuff shackles around his arms and feet standing beside a court-appointed lawyer. I didn’t catch the name of the defendant because I had walked in on the proceedings half way through, but before the man plead guilty to the charges against him, a grizzly description of the man’s crime was read to the court. They said he’d stabbed his victim over 100 times in one sector of their body, and then over a dozen times in another. It was a heinous act hard to comprehend as you looked upon the defendant. What type of lack of morality could bring someone to have such callous disregard for human life?

The man plead guilty to 2nd Degree Murder, and then disappeared back into the bowels of the courthouse to go back to jail. 2nd Degree Murder was the same charge Chris Ferrell was found guilty of for picking up a .22 pistol and firing three times at Wayne Mills after Wayne had threatened to kill Ferrell twice. The third bullet hit Mills in the top of the head as he presumably turned to leave. He later died of his injuries.

It’s a possibility Chris Ferrell could have plead down to Voluntary Manslaughter if he’d forgone a jury trial. We don’t know that for sure, but as it was explained to Saving Country Music by the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office, it is always the attempt of prosecutors to plead down to avoid the costly and time-consuming effort of a trial. 95% of criminal cases in Davidson County are settled without a trial. If Chris Ferrell had agreed to voluntary manslaughter charges, he would have faced a sentence of 3 to 15 years. And as a Class C felony, he would have faced a greater opportunity to serve less of that sentenced time. Now Ferrell faces 15 to 25 years in prison on a mandatory sentence. His sentencing is April 10th.

UPDATE 4-16-15: Saving Country Music was contacted by the defense, and they insist Chris Ferrell was never offered to plea down to voluntary manslaughter charges.

A lot of people surmised what the position of Saving Country Music might be while covering the trial, while others gave the site credit for impartiality. If I had any wish in how the case resulted, it would have been that it resulted in a manner where it was truly resolved; where everyone involved, especially the Mills family, could receive a sense of closure, even if the outcome was less than ideal. If I was a betting man, I probably would have told you at every point in the trial that Chris Ferrell would be found guilty of Voluntary Manslaughter, not 2nd Degree Murder. Multiple witnesses corroborated that Ferrell was verbally threatened. There was no motive. It was an act of passion, which is the fundamental difference between 2nd Degree Murder and Voluntary Manslaughter charges. But in the end, Ferrell’s lying to police and staging the crime scene overrode those concerns and had the jury returning a “Guilty” verdict in quick order.

If I was a betting man, I would have also told you it would have taken hours for the jury to conclude deliberations, if not days. Though officially the jury was in deliberations for around two hours, the first hour was the jury’s lunch break. The jury took a case that looked 50/50 going in, and 50/50 going out as far as the chance of acquittal or conviction, and made quick work of it. It was about the quickest decision one could expect for a murder case.

It was surprising, not just from my perspective, but from the perspectives conveyed by some of my colleagues in the press corps of the proceedings, and some law student and other bystanders that had assembled to witness what could eventually become a landmark case in America’s self-defense laws. If Chris Ferrell had been acquitted because of his self-defense claim, then this week we would have vehement anger coming from many Wayne Mills friends, family, and fans. If it was a Voluntary Manslaughter conviction, maybe there weren’t be as much adulation on the Wayne Mills side, but the matter would be resolved. But with the 2nd Degree Murder conviction, you have a sense this processes, and the grief surrounding it could stretch out for years. Chris Ferrell’s lawyer David Raybin promised to appeal the case to the appellate level, and it’s likely he will. Ferrell’s defense team was undoubtedly part of the decision to fight the charges instead of settle them. So that resolution Saving Country Music was rooting for at the end of this trial may turn out to be elusive.

And as far as taking sides, that always seemed like an over-simplification of this issue. Justice is what everyone should root for, but seeing Chris Ferrell’s mother, and the rest of his family leaving the courtroom huddled together, sobbing inconsolably, is not something that should give anyone a sense of satisfaction. Their son and brother now goes to prison, no matter what appellate outcomes occur down the road.

And on the appellate issue, I found it interesting that on the day the verdict was read, I spoke to some law students whose professor happened to be Judge Steve Dozier—the presiding judge in the case. They explained that Judge Dozier’s record was impeccable when it came to the appellate court dealing with his decisions. Only one case in 12 years had been taken up in the appellate court after being tried in Judge Dozier’s courtroom. Speaking to another media member who regularly covers Davidson County (Nashville) courts, they were surprised there had even been the one. Judge Dozier doesn’t make mistakes, and he was the even keel throughout an emotionally-charged process.

Throughout the trial, the prosecution appeared to be outmatched, and outgunned frankly. The defense meticulously worked over the jury pool to get the candidates they desired, while the prosecution appeared they would have accepted the first 12 warm bodies. David Raybin, assisted by his son Ben Raybin and private investigator Larry Flair, seemed passionate and prepared, where the prosecution just felt like public employees doing their job. Assistant District Attorney Wesley King, late in his closing statements, said that Chris Ferrell wasn’t Wayne Mills’ friend. I don’t know if that’s a correct assessment, but King’s trial-ending characterization of Chris Ferrell cupping his .22 on the third shot to “finish the job” may have been the phrase that won the prosecution the trial.

I think Chris Ferrell and Wayne Mills were friends, even if Wayne was the only friend Chris ever had because Chris was so caustic to be around, and because Wayne had such a big heart. This was a tragedy. And even if Chris Ferrell is a gun freak, and one of those people we’ve all have known in our lives that have a quick temper and can be scary to be around, the killing hasn’t served his best interests in any way. It was a huge mistake, as was his lying about it afterwards, and it will cost him for the rest of his life.

And questioning the police and investigative work was not just a defense tactic. There were major, lingering questions throughout this trial about how the police handled this case, and some of them still remain, making the opportunities of impending appeals very problematic for resolving the Wayne Mills murder case in the short term.

Saving Country Music posed three primary questions before the trial that would hopefully be answered during the proceedings:

1. Why did it take so long for police to get the name of Wayne Mills right?

Unfortunately, this question was not answered. If anything we may have even more questions now. During the trial, the video of Chris Ferrell’s initial interview at Nashville’s Central Precinct was played in its entirety for the court. In it, lead detective Leonard Peck takes a picture out of Clayton Mills—another Nashville songwriter who was mis-identified as Wayne Mills for some 10 1/2 hours after the shooting—and asked Chris Ferrell if it was his “friend.” Chris Ferrell almost seemed dumfounded by the question, as if it was inexplicable the police couldn’t even get the victim’s identity right some three hours after the shooting. Ferrell told detective Peck that they had the wrong guy, that it was Wayne Mills, and he even showed him a picture of Wayne on his phone taken from earlier that evening. Still it took police some seven hours to get the name straight. This was a fact the defense used against the prosecution in the case.

Apparently the name Clayton Mills had been given to police by one of the three primary witnesses: T.J. Howard, Nadia Marcum, or Susan Branham. But they could have given the correct name to police, and then police bungled the spelling or misheard them.

2. If no toxicology was ever ordered for Chris Ferrell, why?

We found out for certain that no toxicology was ever done on Chris Ferrell. Why? We’re not really sure. Once again this was something the defense used to question the efficacy of the investigation, even though it may have been to the detriment of the defense if a toxicology report was done. Defense attorney David Raybin pointed out that Chris Ferrell voluntarily submitted to a search of his premises, voluntarily talked to the investigators without a lawyer present, and before being read his Miranda rights. Why wouldn’t he have agreed to a tox screening?

3. What was the involvement of Shooter Jennings?

When it came to the shooting death of Wayne Mills, the rumors that Shooter Jennings, and potentially his manager Jon Hensley had something to do with the killing—if not something illegal, then maybe something improper—came early and often after it was revealed Shooter was in attendance that fateful night. On the surface I suppose, it only makes sense there would be some speculation. Having sat through the opening statements and all the testimony, one can easily say that beyond the names of the victim and the defendant, and maybe witness and Chris Ferrell friend Susan Branham, Shooter’s name came up in court more than anyone else’s. Assistant District Attorney Tammy Meade even said during her closing statements, “We’ve heard enough about him [Shooter Jennings] this week.”

Shooter’s Full Moon Saloon concert after the George Jones tribute in Nashville is where everyone in attendance at the after hours party at Chris Ferrell’s Pit and Barrel bar first met up. Shooter was the guest of honor at the after party. When Wayne Mills lit up a cigarette, it was the spark that started off the altercation that eventually led to the Wayne’s death, but when Shooter Jennings lit up a cigarette, Chris Ferrell allowed him to smoke in the bar freely. Chris Ferrell testified that he loved Shooter’s music and that they were friends. Chris presented a “double standard” by his own admission because he wanted to stay on the good side of Shooter. None of that information ever made Shooter Jennings culpable for any crime, either under Tennessee law, or the court of public opinion. But that never stopped the speculation.

Writer Neil Alexander Hamilton, who wrote a book called Outlaws Still At Large that featured Wayne Mills, and had its forward penned by Shooter Jennings, took the point in speculating publicly that Shooter may have taken part in some wrongdoing that night, but Hamilton was in no way the impetus of the rumors. He was just the one who decided to go public with him. Behind-the-scenes, the murmurings were of Shooter and Jon Hensley involved in some shady drug deal, and had traveled to the Pit and Barrel bar with Wayne to “score” drugs. The rumors seemed to leave out no detail. Chris Ferrell was a drug dealer, and on top of that, a snitch for the Nashville Metro PD, and possibly the whole Wayne Mills killing was a drug deal gone bad, and Chris Ferrell was getting away with the wrap because of his buddies at the police department. Hey, how else are you going to fuel a party that stretched until five in the morning?

The problem of course was that none of the rumors were true, or ever entirely plausible. As we discovered through the trial, Shooter left significantly before the shooting, likely 25 to 35 minutes or so, and this fact was corroborated by the other witnesses. Aside from happening to be at the same bar where Wayne Mills got killed, Shooter’s involvement was virtually coincidental. Shooter left well before the scene turned ugly, which also exonerates Shooter from another implication: that he should have rendered aid to Wayne Mills to save his life, or stop Chris Ferrell from killing him by intervening somehow. And though Shooter was mentioned by both the defense and the prosecution as a potential witness in the case during the preliminary trial proceedings, in the end neither side felt the need to call him. They never called Jamey Jonson either.

That’s where another misrepresentation of facts comes in. Some people were misconstruing Shooter’s role in the night of the shooting with another musician, T.J. Howard, who was actually present on the scene when shots were fired. But unlike Shooter, T.J. was not intimately familiar with Wayne Mills, and probably shouldn’t be held accountable for anything. Ultimately, this was an issue between Wayne Mills and Chris Ferrell, and Chris Ferrell was the one who pulled the trigger, and should pay the price for his actions.

For simply broaching the subject of Shooter’s involvement, Saving Country Music was accused of being bias and spiteful towards Waylon’s son, because of a previous history of some public disagreements with him. But in reality, Saving Country music may have been Shooter’s best friend through this process as rumors and conjecture ran rampant, calling for the facts to come out instead of participating in wild speculation. And because Shooter was involved in the investigation and could have been called as a witness, it was not his place to go into details of what happened that night, nor did he need to since ultimately he did nothing wrong, and wasn’t really even there when the important events transpired.

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So Shooter has now been exonerated from any wrongdoing, and Chris Ferrell is in custody after a 2nd Degree Murder conviction, yet no sense of closure has swept across the Saving Country Music headquarters. There’s a sense this thing is headed for a long appeals fight. And no matter what justice occurs, it will never bring back Wayne Mills.